Afghanistan’s warring sides have started negotiations for the first time, bringing together the Taliban and delegates appointed by the Afghan Government for historic meetings aimed at ending decades of war.
- A permanent ceasefire and the rights of women and minorities are expected to be discussed
- Four women negotiators have travelled to the talks as part of the Afghan Government’s delegation
- Changes to the country’s official name and flag design could be part of the deals discussed
The ceremony began in Qatar’s capital Doha on Saturday morning with a recitation from the Koran, followed by opening comments from Qatar’s Foreign Minister.
Major players in the process, including Afghanistan’s peace council chairman Abdullah Abdullah, Taliban leader Mullah Baradar Akhund and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been scheduled to speak.
“Each of you carry a great responsibility,” Mr Pompeo told the participants in his opening remarks.
“You have an opportunity to overcome your divisions.”
Officials, diplomats and analysts said organising for both sides to be at the negotiating table was an achievement, but the path to peace would not necessarily be easy.
“The negotiations will have to tackle a range of profound questions about the kind of country Afghans want,” Deborah Lyons, the United Nations special representative for Afghanistan, told the UN Security Council this month.
While Saturday’s opening was about ceremony, the hard negotiations will be held behind closed doors.
Tough issues to be tackled include the terms of a permanent ceasefire, the rights of women and minorities, and the disarming of tens of thousands of Taliban fighters and militias loyal to warlords, some of them aligned with the Government.
The Afghan sides are also expected to discuss constitutional changes and power sharing.
Among the Government-appointed negotiators are four women, who have vowed to preserve women’s rights in any power sharing deal with the hard-line Taliban.
This includes the right to work, education and participation in political life, which were all denied to women when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years.
Even seemingly mundane issues like the flag and the name of the country — the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan or as the Taliban’s administration was known when it ruled, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — could find their way onto the negotiation table and roil tempers.
Meeting follows 9/11 anniversary, prisoner swap deal
The inauguration ceremony comes a day after the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the US that triggered its military involvement in Afghanistan.
The 19-year conflict is also the longest overseas military action undertaken by the US, and has vexed three successive presidents.
US forces intervened in Afghanistan on the orders of former president George W Bush a month after the attacks to hunt down their mastermind, Osama bin Laden, a Saudi who had been given sanctuary by the country’s radical Islamist Taliban rulers.
They initially offered mainly air support to the Taliban’s local enemies.
Although the Taliban regime was quickly toppled, they regrouped and have since waged an insurgency that has sucked in Afghanistan’s neighbours and troops from dozens of countries, including NATO forces.
Negotiations to broker a comprehensive peace deal were envisaged in a troop withdrawal pact signed between the US and the Taliban in February.
After months of delay, a dispute over the Taliban’s demand for the release of 5,000 prisoners was resolved this week.
Talks only way to end conflict, experts say
Ahead of the US presidential election in November, President Donald Trump has been looking to show progress in his pledge to end US involvement in Afghanistan and pull out most of the foreign forces stationed in the country.
The US has reduced its troop levels and by November is expected to have fewer than 5,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, down from about 13,000 when the US–Taliban deal was signed.
More than 2,300 US troops have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, and about 450 British soldiers.
A European diplomat in Kabul said a ceasefire, which the Taliban have so far rejected, should top the talk’s agenda.
“The Taliban leaders will have to stop fighters from attacking Afghan forces and civilians, violence continues to degrade the atmosphere and potentially derail negotiations,” the diplomat said.
How to include the Taliban, who reject the legitimacy of the Western–backed Afghan Government, in any governing arrangement and how to safeguard the rights of women and minorities who suffered under Taliban rule are big challenges, experts said.
Nevertheless many diplomats, victims of violence and members of civil society said negotiations are the only realistic way to bring an end to a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 civilians and hampered Afghanistan’s development, leaving millions in poverty.
“Solutions will not be found on the battlefield, we know this,” Ms Lyons said.